Leslie Lawrence says the pain she felt after losing her job at Century Aluminum extended far beyond the uncertainties of juggling bills and supporting a family after the work life she'd known for 15 years suddenly ended in 2015.
"I was very depressed," Lawrence recalls of the Christmastime layoffs at the Goose Creek aluminum smelter.
"My co-workers were my family," she added. "I loved being at work. I was at work more than I was at home. I missed the job, but more than that I missed the people."
Lawrence was one of about 300 workers laid off when Century cut the smelter's production in half after failing to strike a new deal with its electric utility for cheaper power. Those were dark days for Lawrence and her co-workers, many of them angry at the time about the prospects of losing a livelihood that helped them buy homes, raise families and take care of aging parents.
Century is still running its Mount Holly smelter at half capacity and it hasn't renegotiated its contract with electric utility Santee Cooper. But the mood these days is considerably brighter.
The company is again hiring workers — Lawrence among them, rejoining the plant and people she loves — as President Donald Trump's tariffs on foreign aluminum imports have buoyed U.S. production of the metal. Century this month reported a 21 percent increase in sales during the second quarter and said full-year production is expected to increase by 60 percent over 2017 levels.
"Bottom line, the tariffs are having their intended effect and that's to allow the U.S. industry to reinvest for long-term competitiveness," Mike Bless, Century's president and CEO, told analysts during a recent conference call.
Back in 2015, A.J. Nelson worried about how a plant closure might affect his kids. Today, he's more optimistic.
"They're investing in the plant and it's always a good sign when you see money being spent," said Nelson, a supervisor in the smelter's cast house. "You see new faces coming in. If the plant wasn't going to be running, you wouldn't see people being hired."
Talk of shutting down Century's plant has waned. Bless told analysts that he plans to operate Mount Holly at its current production level through 2019 as Century continues to negotiate for cheaper electricity — an expense that accounts for 40 percent of the cost of producing the metal.
Dennis Harbath, plant manager at Mount Holly, said he believes the smelter will return to full production. But he doesn't want his employees to be distracted by power contracts or what might happen in the future.
"We need to control what we can control," said Harbath, a former steel mill supervisor who came to Mount Holly in December from Century's smelter in Hawesville, Ky. "We have faith in the Century leadership that they're trying to figure out how to get this problem solved."
Century is restarting three Hawesville potlines that were idled in 2015 as cheap aluminum from China was flooding the U.S. market. The plant will be fully operational by early 2019, once Century completes a $75 million renovation at the site.
The investment, Bless the CEO said, is proof that "this industry absolutely can be competitive over the long term."
Bless says he wants the second Mount Holly potline to restart but he can't make it work financially as long as the smelter has to buy one-fourth of its power from Santee Cooper, the Moncks Corner-based electric utility. The company's Kentucky smelters buy power on the open market at a cheaper rate.
Santee Cooper has said it can't let Mount Holly buy all of its power on the open market without forcing other customers to subsidize the smelter's transmission costs.
"If we had a level playing field, we could outrun every smelter across the country," Marvin Dickerson, Mount Holly's human resources manager, said of the plant, the nation's newest and most technologically advanced. "We can compete with anyone in the world. It's just a matter of making sure we manage our costs."
Dickerson said average annual wages and benefits at the plant total nearly $93,000 per person, and a study by the University of South Carolina shows Mount Holly has an annual economic impact of about $1 billion in the Charleston region when it's running at full capacity.
"There's opportunity for a good livelihood out here and to take care of your family," Lawrence said. Dickerson adds he knows "24-year-olds who are able to buy a home" because of the plant's good wages.
"You don't find that in many places," Dickerson said. "The people who were laid off (in 2015), many of them had to go to places and work for $14 an hour. You can't support a family on that."
Lawrence knows that firsthand, taking a substantial pay cut when she found another area job following her 2015 layoff. Now that she's back at Mount Holly, Lawrence said she's hopeful a new electricity contract can be worked out so the smelter can run at full capacity and her former co-workers can be rehired.
It's a sentiment shared by the 308 people who are keeping the smelter running 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"We are very confident," Lawrence said of the optimism she shares with her co-workers. "We have metal to make, and we're going to do it."